On Tuesday, the Recording Academy announced the nominations for the 64th annual Grammy Awards, set to take place on January 31. With the announcement comes a bevy of questions: Did the new process, supposedly improved in part because the Weeknd was snubbed last year, result in better representation? Did breakout superstars like Olivia Rodrigo get their proper due? Is the Academy starting to suffer from Taylor Swift fatigue? To parse those questions and more, we’re breaking down our winners and losers from this year’s field.
Winner: Olivia Rodrigo
The biggest story of Tuesday’s announcement was also its most predictable: Rodrigo earned seven nominations, including nods in each of the big four categories of Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best New Artist. The teen who made elder millennials feel feelings they weren’t expecting is likely a lock to take home at least a few of these awards—it’s hard to see any of the albums aside from maybe Billie Eilish’s Happier Than Ever beating out Rodrigo’s Sour. “Drivers License” was nearly ubiquitous in an era of fractured listenership, and the academy might as well start engraving her name in the Best New Artist statue. The immediate stardom of the Disney actress turned pop singer may have been surprising at the beginning of 2021, but as the year comes to a close, she’s as sure of a bet as there is at the Grammys.
After Drake and Kanye West were pictured together last week—presumably at the behest of Rap-A-Lot impresario J. Prince—and after the announcement the rap titans would host a benefit concert next month to help free convicted gang leader Larry Hoover, it would appear the beef is over. So, after a long summer of parsing petty snipes, group texts, and leaked songs, no one needs to spend an additional second thinking about who’s “winning” this battle that no one asked for. But if we reduce the feud to the simple metric of analyzing Grammy nominations, Drake lost.
Ye’s Donda was nominated for Album of the Year and Best Rap Album, while Drake’s Certified Lover Boy was relegated to the genre category. Perhaps it’s because the voting viewed it as a retread of the tried-and-tested Drake formula, but historically, that formula has worked out well in regards to Grammy nominations, with both Scorpion and Views earning nods in the big category. Despite the Album of the Year category expanding from eight to 10 nominees for this year’s ceremony—and despite Drake’s continued iron grip on the Billboard charts—Certified Lover Boy was shut out where it mattered. (Drake might argue that it may not matter at all; Kanye, now a 75-time nominee, may disagree.)
It should be noted that historically, using Grammy wins and nominations to keep score between artists is a fraught proposition. This is doubly true when it comes to genres like hip-hop, which the Recording Academy has never had a firm grasp on. But this is the level Drake and Kanye are playing on: They are two of the richest men in entertainment, and the entire music industry has bent to their will time and time again over the past decade. The Grammys are tailor-made for artists of their ilk. Drake’s absence from the album category is notable, even more so when contrasted with his erstwhile foe.
Winner (Barely): Taylor Swift
It wouldn’t be a Grammys cycle if we didn’t view it through the prism of Taylor Swift. It’s been an up-and-down few years for the pop icon when it comes to the awards: She was denied Album of the Year nominations for 2017’s Reputation and 2019’s Lover, instead settling for nods in the Pop Vocal Album category for each, before roaring back last year with Folklore, which claimed the top prize this past spring. This year, she was faced with a dilemma: Should she submit her second album of 2020, December’s Evermore, for consideration, or her expansive rerecorded version of Fearless, part of her ongoing attempts to regain some ownership over her older music?
Taylor chose the former. Evermore earned just a single nod, for Album of the Year. It doesn’t appear in any of the genre categories, and none of its songs appear anywhere on the list. (In fact, Taylor’s name appears only once elsewhere on the official list of Grammy nominations: as a cowriter on Sour, a credit she earned not for a collaboration, but because Rodrigo has handed out royalties to seemingly everyone in an effort to avoid lawsuits.) That Evermore could earn a nomination despite many critics viewing it as a collection of leftover Folklore cuts seems to be a testament to Taylor’s inevitability, but it’s difficult to view it as a full-blown victory when younger artists like Rodrigo and Eilish appear up and down the list of nominees. Is it a sign of her eroding power? We wouldn’t bet on it: With Red (Taylor’s Version) and its pointed 10-minute take of “All Too Well” dominating the cultural conversation at the moment, the Grammys could become Taylor-heavy again as soon as next year.
Winner: The Billie Eilish Machine
There’s no more reliable Grammy bait at this point than Billie Eilish, who has defined the awards show for the past two years. (You’ll recall the comical picture of her attempting to hold all her statues after the 2020 ceremony; you hopefully won’t recall her awkward speech after her surprise Record of the Year win in March, in which she essentially pulled a Macklemore on Megan Thee Stallion.) This year should be no different: Eilish tied with breakout star Rodrigo with seven nominations. Perhaps more impressively, her gravitational pull likely helped earn her brother and producer Finneas a nod in the Best New Artist category. (No shots at the talents of Finneas, who is one of the more interesting producers working in popular music, but the next fan of his solo work I meet will be the first.) Eilish may be a long shot to repeat her five-win performance in 2020, but as long as she’s putting out music, you can pencil her in for a half dozen nominations a year.
Winner: H.E.R.’s Manager, Presumably the Greatest Schmoozer in Music
Heading into this Grammys cycle, the talented singer-songwriter-guitarist had earned 13 Grammy nominations over the past three ceremonies. On Tuesday, she picked up eight more. This is a credit to H.E.R.’s music—it’s rich and layered, and it’s drawn comparisons to Prince—and her great 2021 official debut, Back of My Mind. But the nomination tally is also seemingly a credit to H.E.R.’s team’s networking abilities; how else do you explain an album that peaked at no. 6, has yet to go platinum, and hasn’t spawned a Top 40 hit outpacing Rodrigo, Eilish, and nearly everyone else? Whatever the outcome at the ceremony at the Crypt in January, H.E.R. has already won.
Loser: Old Favorites Ariana Grande, Megan Thee Stallion, and Kacey Musgraves
Let’s look at the rest of the ballot for Album of the Year and Record of the Year. First, there’s the predictable and (mostly) deserved: Justin Bieber, Doja Cat, Silk Sonic, and Lil Nas X. Then, as always, there’s the weird: Jon Batiste—yes, Stephen Colbert’s band leader Jon Batiste—snuck into both major categories ahead of plenty of bigger or more interesting artists. But the biggest WTFs come from who’s missing: Megan Thee Stallion, one of the biggest stories from last year’s ceremonies, was shut out of the major categories for Good News. Same goes for Kacey Musgraves—who won at the 2019 Grammys for Golden Hour—and Ariana Grande, who was nominated in 2020 for thank u, next. Both earned nods in genre categories, though Kacey’s appearance there is somewhat confusing: “Camera Roll” is nominated for Best Country Song and Best Country Solo Performance despite the Recording Academy ruling earlier this year that the album it comes from, Star-Crossed, should be classified as pop (and despite Kacey earning exactly zero nominations in the pop categories). Entirely absent from the nominations: Lorde, who may have won over inspirational-quote Instagram with Solar Power but clearly failed to impress the voting body.
Loser: Pop Stars Cosplaying As Rock Stars
Machine Gun Kelly enlisted Travis Barker to assist him with his mall-punk turn, Tickets to My Downfall; Miley Cyrus called in a group of classic rockers ranging from Stevie Nicks to Joan Jett to Billy Idol for her critic-baiting Plastic Hearts. These are the types of moves the Grammys should love: the oft-derided pop star making a bid for seriousness by doing something that seems daring, but is ultimately safe. But the Recording Academy couldn’t be bothered, as both MGK and Miley came up empty on Tuesday. Maybe next they should pivot to whatever Jon Batiste is making.
Winner: Our Favorites in the Genre Category
Genre categories should still be somewhat celebrated, because those are where some of our favorites from the past year of music reside: Baby Keem and Saweetie both got nods for Best Rap Song (both also appear in the Best New Artist category), while Tyler, the Creator’s excellent Call Me If You Get Lost could earn him his second Best Rap Album award (even if he questions the categorization for his first one). Jazmine Sullivan, who may have released the actual album of the year with January’s Heaux Tales, pops up in three R&B categories. Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, and Mickey Guyton all join Kacey Musgraves in the country categories. James Blake and Sylvan Esso earned dance/electronic music nominations. The somewhat goofily classified Best Alternative Music Album category reads like a SiriusXMU playlist, with Fleet Foxes, Halsey, Arlo Parks, St. Vincent, and Japanese Breakfast all landing there. While the big four categories may range from letdown to downright perplexing, there’s still plenty worth rooting for.
Mixed: A Supposedly Better Process
This year was supposed to be different: After the Weeknd debacle last November, wherein one of the biggest pop stars on the planet was bafflingly shut out of the nominations and subsequently went on a scorched-earth campaign against the Recording Academy, changes were made. More than 90 percent of the voting body was “requalified,” as to ensure the people deciding the nominations were “actively engaged in music creation.” And perhaps more significantly, the organization did away with the so-called “secret committees”—the 15-to-30-person nominations review committees that decide genre categories—and replaced them with a majority, peer-to-peer vote. “This is a new Academy, one that is driven to action and that has doubled down on the commitment to meeting the needs of the music community,” academy chair and interim CEO Harvey Mason Jr. said in a statement announcing the changes in May.
So did the new process succeed? In some ways, yes: The Lil Nas X and Doja Cat nominations feel like a coronation of each as Serious Grammy Artists, which shouldn’t be overlooked given that we’re talking about a young, brash queer rapper and equally young and brash female rapper (albeit one with some problematic skeletons in her closet). The Best New Artist category—which features Saweetie, Arlo Parks, Japanese Breakfast, Glass Animals, and the Kid Laroi alongside a handful of others—feels genuinely exciting, even if those artists are all competing for second place behind Olivia Rodrigo. And for evidence that the peer-to-peer voting system is working in the genre categories, look no further than the Best Rap Album field: While last year’s delightfully true-head-pandering nominations featured critical favorites Freddie Gibbs, Royce Da 5’9”, Nas, and Jay Electronica, it omitted the likes of Pop Smoke, Juice WRLD, Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, and others who dominated the genre culturally and commercially. This year’s field isn’t perfect, but with Drake, Kanye, J. Cole, and Tyler, the Creator earning nods, it reflects the way fans actually consumed rap music this year. (Though, it should be noted, no women were nominated in the category; in place of Nas, voters could’ve gone with Megan or even British rapper Little Simz, whose outstanding album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert feels like nothing if not catnip for the Recording Academy.)
But with an institution as staid as the Grammys, progress will always be incremental. It’s unfortunate that Jon Batiste, a seemingly nice man who makes decent if inoffensive R&B (and won an Oscar for his work on Soul), will likely become a symbol of a not-quite-fixed process, but handing him 11 nominations—most of any artist!—is borderline indefensible. You’d be forgiven for missing the release of new ABBA and Tony Bennett–Lady Gaga collections this year, but these are the exact types of albums the Grammys will always reward. And for a second consecutive year, BTS and Bad Bunny were relegated to minor categories despite being among the most-streamed artists both stateside and globally. (Other massive global artists including Rauw Alejandro, J Balvin, and Wizkid were also punted to down-ballot categories.) If the Recording Academy wants to fix these issues, it will take more than a few tweaks and prematurely triumphant press releases—it may require an overhaul of the voting body. The question now is whether any public backlash to Tuesday’s nominations will be enough to drive the organization to take that type of action.